We wish to see Jesus: Sermon at the Consecration of John Charles McIntyre as Eleventh Bishop of Gippsland.
St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne
‘Greeks come’ with a request: ‘we wish to see Jesus’; the Bible comment is almost casual. They engage the reader for the fraction of a moment and then slip out of the story altogether. They are the alien, the outsider, the unthinkable. Just once before in the Gospel of John their presence has been hinted at, but the possibility that Jesus might share the majesty of God with outsiders is found almost blasphemous (John 7:35). They are close enough to long for connection, but distant enough to be disregarded and despised.
Some Greeks came to Philip, who was from Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves their life loses it, and whoever hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, they must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour them (John 12: 20-26).
WE WISH TO SEE JESUS
‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’. I can’t think of a more dynamic challenge for this moment in St Paul’s Cathedral than those words from John’s Gospel. Looked at in the most common-sense way, here are people seeking an interview with Jesus. They have clearly come a long way and they need answers to some hard questions. No one is going to pin their life and future on one more community do-gooder or political revolutionary without asking what their words and actions amount to.
So, John McIntyre, there is an interview at hand. In the days ahead we will need to know what you mean when you talk about Jesus and the new life he promised and what ‘loving’ means in action. The story we have just heard as the Consecration Service Gospel follows on directly from some very hard questions indeed.
Chapter 12 of John’s Gospel is quite pointed about relationships in a Christian household – how should people treat each other and what priority does faith have in these relationships? What is our attitude to evil and corrupt behaviour? Do we just wink at sin and go on being relativists? When poverty strikes and there is no work and no hope of work, where does justice lie? John’s Gospel chapter 12 tears at the heart of our easy answers. There is a shocking conclusion, Jesus, only Jesus, is at the centre of life’s content.
If you will allow Luke’s version of this story to overlap John’s, what do you make of people whose lifestyle challenges yours – when the outsider gate-crashes your security? And when death intrudes, is it the end of everything or in some mysterious way a new beginning? All of this is pressing question and if Jesus has the answers, then we need to hear you tell us about it in words we can understand. Because frankly the answers so far seem utterly alien to the way we have learnt to see life.
Well, let’s spend time gathering how John’s Gospel offers us another way of ‘seeing’ and a different way of ‘discovering’. ‘Greeks come’, John says simply. They engage the reader for the fraction of a moment and then slip out of the story altogether. They are the alien, the outsider, the unthinkable. Just once before in this Gospel their presence has been hinted at, but the possibility that Jesus might share the majesty of God with outsiders is found almost blasphemous (John 7:35). They are close enough to long for connection, but distant enough to be disregarded and despised.
WE WISH TO SEE JESUS IN THE POLITICS OF CHANGE
In the twenty years John McIntyre and I have known each other I have engaged with a man whose heart lay with the alien and the outsider. In all that time, he allowed his understanding of God and human nature to shape his contact with people. And many in the establishment found this offensive. His understanding of Jesus’ teaching brought race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality under the microscope. These are the social and communal crises in which we live. Each of them challenges the justice we say we live by. He took the words and actions of Jesus, that are key to John’s Gospel chapter 12, as normative for his own life.
We all talk words about acceptance but John and Jan live them. Each in their own way reach out to alienated people and help them find community. They are passionate about the needs of dispossessed people. They have dirtied their hands in the simple affairs of life – people in ‘the Block’ being dispossessed from their homes, Indigenous people gaining a property of their own for worship and socializing, women marginalised in the church by being refused ordination to the priesthood, gay people burdened with the guilt of others’ rejection. Here, with the same basic questions raised by John’s Gospel chapter 12, John and Jan McIntyre lived out how people might treat each other and they showed faith’s priority in their own relationship. John and Jan spoke about justice in the face of evil and corrupt behaviour. And when poverty struck and there was no work and no hope of work, they committed themselves to the politics of change.
They lived out the complex questions about life and death – and all the time when the outsider gate-crashed their own security. That other question brings fresh meaning here: the ‘interview’ with Jesus gains more potency. We have ‘seen’ Jesus in their lives and actions.
‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’. In this new beginning for your life, we are all gathered to be partners in the discovery of Jesus’ words and actions shown through you. For those who haven’t yet got to know anything of the McIntyre’s life, let me add briefly what I know personally of John Mac’s last twenty years. We met at a General Synod Commission on Ministry and Training and instantly became friends. Some of this was the larrikin in both of us; some was the odd jumble of different theological disciplines between Ridley College where John taught and Moore where I lectured.
WE WISH TO JESUS IN THE CRY FOR JUSTICE
However, every time we met, not this, but a passion for the marginalized was the heart of his concern. When the parish of St Saviour’s Redfern was offered, John took the chance to translate his philosophical ethics into human value. Translation was the key to this significant phase of his life. As an academic, he had explored the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr and the human exercise of power. Now he had the chance to see that theology in action.
Redfern was a parish no one wanted. Since the 19th century it had struggled to be viable. After a two-year vacancy, John and Jan and their three children, Paul, Jessica and Lisa, took up residence in the Rectory. In the fifteen years that followed, they embraced the Koori communities and from the tiny church group commenced ministries in the adjacent high-rise developments and among people otherwise dispossessed from church and alienated from family. John and Jan played a key role living as representatives of the love and the justice of God.
Here is how John spoke about this:
Everyday I come face to face with people who are isolated by poverty and exclusion. I am overwhelmed, often to the point of tears, by the depth of sorrow in which so many live their lives … Our church, which reflects the community it seeks to serve, is one tiny beacon of hope in Redfern. We see our unity in diversity as testimony to the transforming power of God. Personally, most of my time is spent with people who do not attend church. My desire is to be a witness to Jesus as I engage with the community for the sake of others. That is how our church sees and understands mission. (Interview with Stuart Robinson 1/8/05 for SydneyAnglicans.net)
In 1997 John was named ‘Citizen of the Year’ by South Sydney Council in recognition of his ministry across the community. Those of us who knew him well watched his tireless commitment to Indigenous land-rights issues, to the formation of Indigenous church communities across the Diocese and his support of Reconciliation between Indigenous and white Australians.
At the same time, he involved himself in the women’s ordination debate and complained about what he saw as the insensitive treatment of homosexual people by the church. Through all of this, he practiced the theology he once taught. And John knew how to challenge those ‘well known for [their] defiance of Scripture’ in one case financing legal action in the secular courts over the ordination of women. What he added I heard often from him:
No amount of fancy-footwork self-serving hermeneutics on the part of diocesan theologians has ever justified that breach of Biblical imperative. Nor will it justify this present case. (Letter to the Editor, Southern Cross, 10 Feb. 2001)
You can expect him to continue this direct challenge to his sense of injustice and hypocrisy.
‘Seeing Jesus’ was for this family about embracing the Redfern community and becoming part of its organisations and activities. John spoke to developers, politicians and local councillors about community change and regeneration. He was always part of the process, longing for people’s transformation. People loved him for his sheer doggedness and honesty. When he took up a cause, he followed through with absolute transparency and integrity. That is what ‘seeing Jesus’ meant for him.
And Jan, partly to keep the finances going, but more, to add her own gift to people, engaged in ‘home care’. She lived Jesus’ command to ‘love’ by undertaking the most menial of tasks to make life more tolerable for others – one day at a time. She practised the presence of God in all these basic tasks.
WE WISH TO SEE JESUS IN ‘THE ORDINARY MAIL OF THE OTHERWORLD’
Don’t hear me turn them into ‘saintly’ figures. They just met God in the ordinary daily events, or as poet Les Murray has put it: ‘What [they] have received is the ordinary mail of the otherworld, wholly common, not postmarked divine’ (‘First Essay on Interest’, The People’s Otherworld, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1983:8).
I come fresh to those words about ‘seeing Jesus’ and know that there is more here than a rational ‘interview’. You will learn to value John well beyond his capacity to listen to you and empathise with your problems. You will discover that he is a man of insight. In our twenty years of friendship he has heard me through many personal, theological and spiritual crises. What I value most is the space he gives to reflect and the silence in which my own heart can speak to me. And when he adds words, they are to ‘awaken’, to touch the soul or spirit. John continues to be what he was trained to do, to be an ethical theologian who can open your heart to the power of loving.
Only people who live this can teach this. Our twenty-year journey has sometimes been intense, more often filled with laughter and tales of the absurd. We have taken each other seriously by learning to live where the heart uncovers pain. Without formal words, we have tapped into the yearning of the soul.
When the question about an ‘interview’ reached Jesus, he replied: ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’ With the outsider pressing to belong to God’s family, Jesus knew that that the old world of exclusion, caste, ritual purity and taboo has passed. The coming of the outsider was the moment of Jesus’ ‘glory’.
As the years have passed my own sense of this Jesus has changed radically. I acknowledge the variety of insights we share; indeed the Greeks who came to see him long ago must have had many conflicting opinions on who he was. Just read chapters 10, 11 and 12 for yourself and you will face the many opinions that circulated then about Jesus. What did he mean when he said he was ‘the Son of God’? In the face of the death of his friend Lazarus, why did he seem so impotent: ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind, have kept this man from dying?’ And even when Lazarus astonishingly appeared before his friends, some greeted this with skepticism and made it a cause to plot Jesus’ downfall.
No, he keeps eluding our definitions and that is the wonderful feature of the Gospel. We can’t contain Jesus. He bursts out of our boundaries of what is acceptable, even of what is godly. He embraces people we wouldn’t want to keep company with – calls them his friends and tells us that of such is God’s Kingdom. John and I know only too well the many street people who found themselves in the strong embrace of God and understood the passion of this enigmatic man Jesus.
When you ask Jesus to define himself, he enigmatically replies ‘Son of Man’. There is a history to this title that must have challenged some of Jesus’ hearers to wonder how political and world-affirming he might be. Others interpreted the words as some super-human conqueror. But his meaning to the ordinary unchurched outsider seems abundantly clear. He is man – he is all that I long to be. No, he’s not a man as I live the term – divisive, divided, uncertain, locked in my own abyss of failure and incompleteness. He is the man I want to become, the man I spend all my days seeking for.
WE WISH TO SEE JESUS EVEN IN LIFE’S DECAY
And when I reach out to take hold of his sort of man, he challenges me to the depth of my being. He calls me to live in a new way by showing me the pattern of his own life: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ That disturbs my complacency and upsets all my plans. He is going to awaken my imagination to new possibilities and lead me to fresh discoveries I never thought possible.
Just sometimes I took services for John and preached at St Saviour’s Redfern. I knew the building well, having filled in year there as locum tenens back in 1959 when the Rector was absent, ill. The remnants of its more colourful and Anglo-Catholic history were everywhere.
There was a profound sadness in the place and though a small congregation persisted, you knew that soon water and white ants would destroy the fabric. Some Sundays the intense swarm of termites drove us outside to conclude the evening service under a street lamp. Some remarkable people took over but in my opinion none more remarkable than John and his immediate predecessor, Archdeacon Huard. They journeyed with people through the dying of the parish, held on to the possibility of new life and built again the congregation. In the last fifteen years, you entered the vitality of a contemporary worship that honoured the Prayer Book and allowed people the joy of discovering and owning publicly the ‘glory’ or Spirit of God that embraced them.
When you talked to these people after church or at weekend conference you heard them touch in the simplest terms their own profound awareness of ‘seeing Jesus’ – remember the interpretation I suggested earlier, they were ‘transformed’, ‘awakened’, ‘re-born’ into a fresh sense of what it meant to be human.
Jesus’ primary meaning was about his own dying and rising. He was the grain of wheat, cold and bare in the earth; he was the sparkle of new life with its abundant possibilities. But his words were also intensely personal.
WE WISH TO SEE JESUS THE BISHOP OF OUR SOULS
Today’s service from the Ordinal, as it speaks about the qualities of a bishop, illustrates my point. I have used the 1662 Prayer Book but the words are paralleled in the modern versions. Here are its classic phrases: John must ‘preach God’s Word’, he must ‘administer Godly discipline’, he is to ‘edify the Church’ and ‘adorn’ doctrine by ‘innocency of life’, he must ‘pray’, ‘teach’ what leads to ‘salvation’, be ‘an example of good works to others’ and be ‘gentle’ and ‘merciful’, ‘to poor and needy people, and to all strangers destitute of help’. But all this is dependent on one basic quality: he is to engage what the old Ordinal still called the ‘Jews and Greeks’ (there they are again) – those inside the Christian community and those alienated, forsaken and despised – by himself living out a ‘dying to self’ and ‘a rising to new life’. The old Prayer Book called the bishop to match ‘our Redemption by Jesus’ death’ by the way the bishop would live his own life.
Jesus leaves us in no doubt about his meaning: ‘Whoever loves their life loses it, and whoever hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, they must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour them.’ The promise repeated in John’s Gospel is Jesus’ own commitment to ‘life without measure’. But this only comes, as John McIntyre knows all too well, when he has faced his own worst demons, owned his pride and yielded to the profound love of that Other Man, the Bishop of his soul, whom he holds in view as the goal and drive of his life.
To become like Jesus by seeing the world as he did, is to begin at the place of your own human poverty. You are following the man who all his life carried the stench of the manger. The Gospels persistently reflect on him as ‘having no place to lay his head’, as in the prophet Isaiah’s words ‘despised and rejected’, as always ‘outside’ with society’s outcasts.
Here is the work of a modern bishop. He builds his ministry around this paradoxical figure, Jesus. He portrays God in the man Jesus and his humiliation. He spends his days as a pastor re-framing these opposites, the man Jesus and God, and helps people reconcile a new awareness of the human becoming one with the divine. His work is to help people own their needs and disabilities – their dying – and at this place of their despair discover the centre of their wondering and imagining. They are not trapped by their past – a new life is possible. Jesus is the catalyst who helps them awaken to who they truly are; as they uncover their humanity they learn that their divinity is already within them. That discovery or ‘seeing’ is our awakening.
For the moment, we are still bound by the wasteland of our unfulfilled desires and our commitment to appearances. And unfulfilled desire is the mark of our tragedy. We see this played out in many of our communities, where dependence on alcohol, drugs, food, pleasure, on poverty itself, have dwarfed people’s humanity. They will only be released as they discover the transformation of their inner being, as they allow the spark of their divinity to kindle.
As a leader in this world of unfulfilled desire, I commend my good friend John and remind him of the Gospel charge: ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus!’
For the Sunday closest to the Feast of Cyril and Methodius, missionaries to the Slavs.
Sermon preached at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, on the occasion of the Consecration of John Charles McIntyre as Eleventh Bishop of Gippsland – 11 February 2006.